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Web searches reveal what we wonder

Quentin Hardy and Matt Richtel (via SMH) | Nov. 26, 2012
There are the questions you ask friends, family and close confidants. And then there are the questions you ask the internet

There are the questions you ask friends, family and close confidants. And then there are the questions you ask the internet.

Search engines have long provided clues to the topics people look up. But now sites like Google and Bing are showing the precise questions that are most frequently asked, giving everyone a chance to peer virtually over one another's shoulders at private curiosities. And they are revealing interesting patterns.

Frequently asked questions include: When will the world end? Is Neil Armstrong Muslim? Was George Washington gay?

The questions come from a feature that Google calls "autocomplete" and Microsoft calls "autosuggest". These anticipate what you are likely to ask based on questions that other people have asked. Simply type a question starting with a word like "is" or "was", and search engines will start filling in the rest.

People who study online behaviour also say the autocomplete feature reveals broader patterns, including indications that the questions people ask of search engines often veer into the sensitive and politically incorrect.

"Your search engine is your best friend, and you talk to it about everything, even things you might not talk about to your real best friends," said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers the search industry. "It's a way that search engines reflect society."

One category of question comes up with puzzling frequency in autocomplete: whether a certain person is gay.

Is Elton John gay? Is Paul Ryan gay? Is Michael Bloomberg gay? The question pops up often, too, when starting searches about George Clooney, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, actress Ellen Page, Genghis Khan, several cartoon characters and even the Pope.

This line of questioning is so commonplace that a simple query on Google beginning with "is" can result in autocomplete predicting that you are about to ask: "Is Frank Ocean gay?" Do the same with Bing, Microsoft's search engine, and it often fills out the question: "Is Robin Roberts gay?" Although these questions do not pop up every time, they do appear with surprising frequency.

Nick In't Ven, senior program manager at Microsoft's Bing search engine, said that the returns reflect the collective curiosities of its users (and that similar results turn up on Google). He could not say how many times people have to type in a question for it to dominate the feature but said that for popular single terms, like "Facebook", it is well into the millions.

Search engine experts said they cannot rule out that the phenomenon is the result of some bug in the system, but they added that it seems very unlikely.

"We base it on experience, what users have asked about around the world," In't Ven said. "We're trying to reflect the world's collective intentions." If people wonder whether other people are gay, "that is the collective intention, and we abide with it".

 

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